On Friday, September 20, Miami Marlins starting pitcher Jose Fernandez ended the top of the eighth inning by inducing a ground out off of the bat of Washington Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy. That night Fernandez was brilliant, stymieing the Nationals offense to the tune of zero runs on just three hits while striking out 12 over eight innings.
I happened to be listening to the game on satellite radio in my car while I was grabbing dinner for my family. Little did I know that it would be the last time that I would be marveled by the talent of the young man who originated from Santa Clara, Cuba.
On Sunday I woke to the news that the 24-year-old Fernandez had died in a boating accident in Miami. Much like the rest of the baseball and sporting world, I was astonished by the tragic loss of the young superstar. Monday night, I watched the touching tribute in his honor by his Marlins family. I was actually taken back by Dee Gordon‘s amazing leadoff home run donning his fallen teammates jersey, followed by his emotional trip around the bases, fighting back tears as he touched home plate. After the game, Gordon called the home run the most amazing moment of his life. If you weren’t moved by that game and the tributes for Fernandez both before and after the game, then you must not truly love the game of baseball.
I don’t have kids, so hitting a HR for Jose Fernandez is the best moment of my life.
Jose Fernandez was a player who reminded us all just how amazing the game of baseball is, and that we should love every opportunity that we have to be a part of it. Whether you’re a player, a coach, a fan, or in any way involved directly to the game of baseball, you would be lucky if you could love baseball as much as Fernandez did.
— Miami Marlins (@Marlins) September 26, 2016
Now having a couple days to digest the news, I decided that I needed to express my feelings on the loss of Fernandez in hopes that I can illustrate to young ballplayers the importance of being like Jose Fernandez and how much he meant to the game of baseball outside of the box score.
You see, Fernandez was much more than an immensely talented young pitcher to baseball. Fernandez was an exuberant personality with an endless love for the game of baseball. He was a fiery competitor, and the ideal teammate to his Marlins brethren. Fernandez was the type of player who young athletes should aspire to be like, and he was a rare treat to watch in the current era of Major League Baseball.
I compete. I compete like crazy. That is just the person I am. I like to have fun. I want for people to say he was always having fun. I want people to say he was a hard worker, that he’s not going to give up. That’s it. That’s all I can ask for.
Baseball is my life. It’s just fun, man, to come out on the field and to do what your dream is. Sometimes we forget that.
Fernandez had to defy great odds just to have the opportunity at the “American Dream.” Following three unsuccessful attempts at defecting from his native home of Cuba, with each attempt resulting in a prison sentence, Fernandez finally made it to Mexico in 2007. On that successful attempt Fernandez had to save the life of his mother, who fell overboard. Fernandez, his mother, and his sister eventually moved to Tampa, Florida, in 2008.
Fernandez continued his fight to obtain his education and citizenship in 2011, when he turned down $1.3 million from the Cincinnati Reds to challenge the Florida High School Athletic Association’s decision that ruled him ineligible for his senior year as a result of Fernandez entering the ninth grade while in Cuba in 2006. Fernandez won his appeal and was able to play his senior season at Braulio Alonso High School in Tampa.
Fernandez would have been able to sign with the Reds as an international free agent, and most American high school athletes would not be presented with the same opportunity. I would be willing to bet that a large number of them would have taken the Reds’ offer and bypassed their senior year in high school. Fernandez, a kid at the time, who grew up poor, served three prison sentences, and nearly lost his mother just to make it to the United States, turned down money he’d only dreamed of to stay in school and finish what he had started.
That in itself is a lesson that many young athletes in the United States could stand to learn from. Fernandez went on to be drafted in the first round of the 2011 draft and blazed through the Marlins minor league system, making only 27 combined starts over parts of two years, including a 14-1 record with a 1.75 ERA en route to winning the Marlins Minor League Pitcher of the Year Award in 2012.
In 2013 Fernandez was tabbed as the fifth-best prospect in baseball, and he made his major league debut with the Marlins, as he made the Opening Day 25-man roster after Marlins pitchers Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez went down with injuries in spring training. Fernandez never looked back, posting a 12-6 record with an ERA of 2.19 while striking out 187 hitters in 172.2 innings pitched. Fernandez burst onto the scene on the strengths of those numbers in 2013, earning a spot on the National League All-Star team as well as Rookie of the Year honors.
On September 11, 2013, Fernandez hit his first major league home run off of Atlanta Braves pitcher Mike Minor. Fernandez watched the ball soar in awe of his accomplishment before making his way around the bases. Atlanta Braves catcher Brian McCann took exception to the admiration and confronted Fernandez at home plate, resulting in both teams’ benches clearing. Even amid the scuffle between the two teams, Fernandez was pictured smiling and joking during the confrontation. Appearing to be just enjoying the moment, the craziness that can be baseball sometimes.
Fernandez was always smiling, always joking, and always laughing about something. That is, when he wasn’t the man on the mound, where he displayed a fiery will to succeed that you would be hard pressed to find around the game of baseball.
The tragic death of one of the game’s best young superstars has shaken the league and made me realize just how important he was to the game of baseball. Seeing the incredible amount of sorrow, prayers, love, and tribute from all of Major League Baseball, its fans, and even other sports including the Miami Dolphins who observed a moment of silence before their game on Sunday afternoon, has allowed me to realize just how important Fernandez was to the game.
As a baseball fan, I took Jose Fernandez for granted. I failed to seek out the means of seeing him play more often. Given that I’m from Illinois, I don’t always have access to Miami Marlins broadcasts. But even worse, as a baseball coach I failed to use his enamoring personality, his passion for the game, and his desire to win as a teaching tool to young players.
Luckily I have been given this platform to express my thoughts and philosophy as a baseball coach, and a teacher of the game by Baseball Essential, allowing me to share my thoughts on Fernandez with all of our readers and hopefully urge more young ballplayers to follow in Fernandez’s footsteps moving forward.
Jose Fernandez will be sorely missed by his family, his friends, his unborn child, his teammates, his opponents, and every single fan of the game of baseball. What we can do in his honor is ensure that we play the game and teach the game in a manner that embodies the qualities that made Fernandez such a star in Major League Baseball. Passion, dedication, love, grit, and determination are just a few of those qualities that Fernandez embodied on the baseball field.
To all of the fans reading this, I want you to seek out players like Jose to watch and cheer for. To the coaches reading this, I want you to teach your players to love the game of baseball like Jose did. Finally, for the players reading this, do everything that you can do in your playing career to leave the mark on the game that Jose did. Play every single inning like it could be your last, because life has a weird way of deciding which out will be the last for us.